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15 posts from March 1, 2012

March 01, 2012

'Real divides' in health care budget slowing budget progress

Persistent differences between the House and Senate over how to handle hospital, nursing homes and mental health budgets have prompted rumors that budget negotiations will be "bumped up" on Thursday to the House and Senate budget chiefs JD Alexander and Denise Grimsley. The conference committee met briefly Thursday night and is scheduled to meet again on Friday morning but the differences are wide.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos conceded Thursday afternoon that "there are some real divides'' over the HHS budget and "it could be troublesome." Among the differences: the Senate cuts payments to mental health and substance abuse programs while the House cuts payments to nursing homes and each side treats cuts to hospital funding differently.

If the negotiations get handed to Alexander and Grimsley, Democratic Leader Nan Rich vowed Thursday to be in the room -- to make sure they make the right allocations, she said.

Continue reading "'Real divides' in health care budget slowing budget progress" »

ALF reform may be in jeopardy

As the clock winds down, lawmakers are yet to vote on bills that would usher in major reforms for troubled assisted living facilities in the state. For more, read here.


From stereotyping Asians to advising prez campaign, Rick Santorum consultant has FL ties

Picture 8Amid Rick Santorum's surprisingly strong surge in Michigan (where he ultimately lost the Republican primary but almost tied Mitt Romney for delegates), we couldn't help but notice a new strategist who started popping up in the press: John Yob.

A former adviser to Sen. John McCain's 08 campaign, Yob had been advising Florida Senate candidate Mike McCalister, whose campaign floundered this summer after he tried to duck a question about embellishing his military record. That video is here, but it carries nowhere near the shock value of the most-infamous ad this election cycle, "Debbie Spend It Now."

Thanks to the gross stereotyping of Asians, specifically Chinese people, the ad is credited with turning  Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra into a likely also-ran. It wasn't just offensive. It was false, according to PolitiFact. Even the actress who portrayed the rice paddy-peddling Chinese girl apologized for appearing in the spot.

The ad is so head-scratchingly tone-deaf, bad and weird that it's like a piece of modern art. The campaign was so proud of the ad it ran it during the Super Bowl. After the backlash, the campaign pulled the spot. Too late.

Yob, who helped advise Hoekstra on the ad, defended it, according to this column from Central Michigan Life's Nathan Inks:

"John Yob, CEO of Strategic National, a major political consulting firm in Michigan, who has served as an advisor for the campaign began deleting all negative comments left on his Facebook link to the ad and deleted those posters from his page. He then left comments implying that people critical of the ad are just liberals and other candidates’ supporters just want to attack Hoekstra.

Not only is that incredibly petty and a terrible public relations move, but it is just not true. I had endorsed Hoekstra and was fully backing him, but after seeing that ad and the response of his advisors, I can no longer support him.

Even Santorum, known for his over-the-top rhetoric, would be hard pressed to match this level of inflammatory campaigning.


House retreats (some) on PIP

The House agreed to tack several amendments onto legislation that reforms the no-fault auto insurance system, an indication that the two chambers are moving toward common ground on the subject.

The amendments approved for HB 119 Thursday would increase the window people injured in an auto accident have to receive initial treatment from 72 hours to seven days. Members also removed a cap on lawyer fees in class action lawsuits.

The House is expected to debate two more amendments Friday before voting on the legislation. One amendment would add chiropractors to the list of medical professionals that can perform follow-up treatments under personal injury protection, or PIP, coverage. The other amendment would require drivers to carry increased bodily injury liability coverage.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s PIP reform legislation, SB 1860, is ready for floor action.

After both chambers pass their versions of PIP reform, leaders from each side will come together to iron out a compromise. The main point of contention will likely be caps on attorney fees.

Market-rate tuition bill moved to third reading in the House

The bill that would give the University of Florida and Florida State University more power to set higher tuition is moving quickly through the House, sailing to third reading shortly after it was taken up on Thursday.

Proponents in both the House and Senate have said the proposal will allow Florida's top universities to better compete with top universities across the nation. They point to Florida's low tuition as justification for giving the universities that flexibility.

“What we have here is a bill, members, that would give us a chance to elevate our research institutions,” said Bill Proctor, chair of the House's higher education committee.

What he didn't say is that while moving this bill forward, both chambers are proposing massive state funding cuts to the university system for the fifth year in a row.

The bill requires that universities meet 11 of 14 benchmarks before getting that additional tuition-setting power. UF meets all of them. FSU meets 11. If it became a reality, the universities' boards of trustees and the Florida Board of Governors would still have to sign off on any new increases.

But before it gets to that point, the bill would need to make it past Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen. And Scott has said repeatedly that he opposes any new tuition increases.

-- Kim Wilmath and Tolu Olorunnipa

As USF leaders wrestle with budget cuts, students protest outside

As University of South Florida leaders tried to come to terms with the massive budget cuts on the way from the Legislature,students marched outside with the same frustrations.

"The students, united, will never be defeated," they chanted -- about 75 of them in all. During the rally, students were encouraged to contact their elected officials to spread the message: stop attacking higher education.

That was the same call to action happening at the same time inside the Marshall Student Center, where USF's Board of Trustees talked about the dire implications that impending budget cuts could have at the school.

This year will be the fifth year in a row the Legislature has cut funding to higher education. Cumulatively over the past four years, the total cut adds up to 25 percent. This year's cuts, alone, are expected to be close to that amount, bringing the five-year total closer to 50 percent.

Meanwhile, tuition has gone up 15 percent per year in the same time period -- as the students pointed out through their bullhorns.

Those tuition hikes were made possible through a program known as tuition differential. Universities are allowed to raise tuition beyond the Legislature's increases to the tuition base, so long as the total increase does not exceed 15 percent per year. The intention for that "differential" boost was to give universities extra "educational enhancement" money. It was supposed to make students' classes smaller, help universities recruit world-class faculty and generally make the academic experience better.

Instead, it's been used to help fill the ever-growing gap in state funding. And it hasn't even come close.

This year the House and Senate are not recommending any increases to base tuition, leaving universities with the option to raise the full 15 percent themselves. And lawmakers assume they'll do just that, factoring in that speculative extra revenue in the universities' total budget plans -- even before universities have a chance to consider whether raising prices is a good idea.

But is there any question that universities won't go for the full hike? With state support so scarce, what else could they do?

"We are being put in the position of having no choice but to raise tuition," said USF Board of Trustees chairman John Ramil. "We are kind of caught in the middle."

The House and Senate are still working out how to divvy up $300 million in one-time cuts to the state university system that the two chambers have agreed to. Lawmakers are expecting universities to use their reserve funds to make up for the loss.

That's not fair either, university leaders say.

While those reserves may seem uncommitted from the outside, inside the university they're earmarked for all sorts of important things, said USF's chief operating officer, John Long. By the end of the year, USF expects that the $100 million in reserves it started with in January will be down to about $76 million. And out of that money, there are still a lot of things USF hoped to fund with it. A few examples: 

  • $6.5 million for summer school, which is not funded by the Legislature
  • $4.3 million for the library's e-resources
  • $4.6 million for faculty start-up packages
  • $10 million for campus infrastructure maintenance

Plus, by state law, the university must keep 5 percent of those reserves on hand. USF's Board of Trustees requires another 3 percent set aside, totaling $18 million, Long said. 

The House and Senate are expected to continue budget talks tonight, hopefully wrapping things up by the end of the weekend.

(Photo: Times Staff Writer Daniel Wallace)

House passes abortion bill as Senate version stalls

As expected, the House passed a broad abortion proposal (HB 277) reviled by Planned Parenthood advocates by a 78-33 vote on Thursday.

We told you about the chamber's late-night Q&A on the measure Wednesday. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, imposes a 24-hour waiting period for the procedure, adds restrictions on the ownership of new abortion clinics, a requirement that physicians who perform the procedure undergo yearly ethics training, and makes the state report demographic information about each abortion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"At the end of the day, this bill is about one thing and one thing only, and that is life," said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami.

Speaking to Burgin, Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, said, "You've done a masterful job of defending something that I truly think if indefensible."

Meanwhile, the companion bill pushed by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, has passed just one committee. Flores said she has asked Sen. Greg Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to withdraw it so it can be debated on the floor without fulfilling all committee stops. But Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he needed to talk to members to "get a feel from the body of where they're at."

"Last year was a tremendous year for pro-life advocates like myself," he said. "If I believe we have the time to dedicate to that issue, I'm willing to take a second look but at this point I believe it's still at the second committee of reference."

A similar version of the bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate.

Repeal of controversial septic tank requirements close to reality

The Legislature is close to repealing a 2010 law that required Floridians to have their septic tanks inspected once every five years. Almost from the beginning, critics decried the measure as creating unnecessary and costly “one-size-fits-all” rules for the entire state.

The House has already approved HB 999, which replaces the statewide requirements with new restrictions on local inspection programs in counties with first-magnitude, or large, springs. The measure also allows local governments to opt out of the new program with a 60-percent majority vote.

The Senate’s Budget Committee approve that chamber's version of the repeal, SB 820 sponsored by Charlie Dean, R-Inverness. The legislation is now ready for a floor vote. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, both voted "no" on SB 820. Negron said he was uncomfortable with the measure because it goes beyond a simple repeal of the 2010 law.

Continue reading "Repeal of controversial septic tank requirements close to reality" »

Rubio, Nelson split votes on birth control repeal

The U.S. Senate voted 51-48 Thursday to block Republican legislation that would have repealed an Obama administration rule requiring most health insurers to cover contraceptives for women.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Roy Blount, R-Mo., would have allowed employers and insurers to deny coverage for health care services beyond birth control if those companies have either religious or moral objections.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who had proposed similar legislation, voted for Blount's proposal. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., voted against it.

In a sign of the polarizing nature of the vote, Democrats immediately attacked Rubio's position.

"Marco Rubio championed a dangerous and extreme measure which would have denied women the lifesaving health care they need," said Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith. "Make no mistake: Sen. Rubio, along with Mitt Romney, tried to turn women's health care into a political football in order to advance their own extreme agenda — a shameful, partisan tactic which threatened the lives of women in our state and across our country. This dangerous legislation would have stripped a Florida woman of her ability to make her own decisions about her health care. Rubio's attack on women was rightfully defeated."

Here's Rubio's response: "The Senate’s failure to pass Senator Blunt's amendment is a setback for religious freedoms in America," he said. "Telling religious based organizations that they must, by mandate of the federal government, pay for things that that religion teaches is wrong. You may not agree with what the religion believes, but that's not the point. The point is the First Amendment still applies. Religious freedom still exists."

And Republicans fired back, singling out Nelson's vote.

"This is just another example of how Obama’s job-killing healthcare law gives the federal government – not the people of Florida – the power to decide what type of healthcare services are best for them," said Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

House passes parent trigger, too

Speaking of high-profile education bills in the House today...

The Parent Empowerment Act, more commonly known as the parent trigger, passed by a 80-34 vote.

The bill, HB 1191, would enable parents at low-performing schools to demand big changes. They could ask for new teachers and school leaders -- and in some instances, even petition to have a neighborhood school transformed into a charter school.

Advocates for the bill said it would give parents a seat at the table.

"It gives them the ability to be heard," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna. "It gives them that voice they need to make sure their children are receiving the best education possible."

Opponents, however, said the bill was meant to benefit charter school companies by giving them access to struggling neighborhood public schools. 

"The danger is that this could be used as another attack on public education," said Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach.

A coalition of grassroots education advocacy groups including the Florida Parent Teacher Association had opposed the bill, and lobbied hard against it.

The Senate version, SB 1718, is awaiting a last-minute hearing in the Budget Committee.